Of course, the black and Latino communities have some culpability. Our demographics don’t produce the highest number of STEM graduates — those specializing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, even examining the positions within marketing, sales, HR or public relations at young tech companies, these positions are still rarely filled by people of color.
Is there a bright side to all this? Might these challenges encourage more African-Americans to strike out on their own? Perhaps.
“It’s the big, pink elephant in the room that no one wants to address because there is this illusion that racism doesn’t exist in this country,” Erin Horne Montgomery, president and executive director for National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs, told theGrio. “The lack of diversity found in the tech start-up community, and the tech industry in general, definitely leads black entrepreneurs to strike out on their own or leave the industry. It’s not by choice, but rather necessity. When you are continuously excluded by your peers and passed over for opportunities that you are qualified [for in favor of someone] less qualified, you are forced to create new ways of survival.”
However, this route may also bring with it certain challenges. “[I had the opportunity to] interview Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com,” Brock noted. “He mentions that when his team was pitching BP to investors, they highlighted their innovative concept of allowing users to create and modify HTML webpages as part of their social network profile. They were consistently asked ‘but who’s going to use it?’ with the implication being that blacks don’t code or [in 2001] even use the Internet.”
Attitudes such as this can make the projects of black entrepreneurs a difficult selling proposition, even if you have the coding chops.
One hopes that venture capitalists have come a long way since 2001. David Teten, partner with ff Venture Capital and founder and chairman of the Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York, thinks so. And he has invested his social capital in increasing tech sector diversity.
“I actually strongly suspect the biggest drivers [for black tech entrepreneurs] are the same that motivate all entrepreneurs as a class: the chance to build something meaningful, have autonomy, and make significant wealth,” Teten told theGrio. “[To that end] Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of New York, which I chair, started the HBS Alumni Angels initiative focused on women and minority entrepreneurs within our first year of activity. ff Venture Capital has funded numerous entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs, prior to the inception of our Venture Capital Access Program.”
Perhaps Teten and his team will encourage greater a broadening in the venture capital community of the types of projects funded. One would hope that similar sentiments would spread, leading to the diversification of boards of companies such as Twitter, which is more frequented by people of color than Caucasians. This is key, because boards are where influence and power in the tech world reside.
When Teten was asked why we don’t see more diversity on the boards he cited the “same reasons that they’re lacking diversity at all levels of the pyramid.” Presumably, racist assumptions are one of those reasons.
How do we move from this state in which prevailing attitudes towards race are replaced with new ones? Attitudes that would benefit the industry through increasing the pool of talent through diversity?
“The way to change this is for people who have been successful from the disadvantaged communities to help others behind them,” Wadhwa believes. “Indians did that and achieved extraordinary success. This is building on itself.”
But Brock does is not as optimistic. “What do I see the future being? This is an easy question and a tough one,” he said. “The patriotic answer is that as America continues to increase in diversity, then the tech industry will have to change. Unfortunately, as a critical scholar, I believe that tech elites will continue to retrench and consolidate their power over the production, design, and development of information technology artifacts; they will maintain dominance over the affluent sectors of tech (which are financing and design), while growing wealthy over the outsourcing of labor to China for manufacturing and India for coding.”
However, Montgomery tends to echo Wadhwa. “Our community could at least better the situation of black entrepreneurs by supporting their business concepts,” she tasked of minority consumers. “As either an investor or consumer, we have the power to create the necessary cash flow to spark economic growth in innovation.”
Thus, the almighty dollar, technology success and the effects of cultural norms are still inextricably tied. However, to Montgomery’s point, the power to impact overall social change has and will always rest with the consumer and user, whose activity drives company earnings. Well, make that the consumer or user who is awake and aware rather than acting like the little lemming.
Many are starting to scratch their heads wondering what is truly at stake as we mover deeper into the era of haves and have nots; an era that will be based very much on today’s moves being made within the tech game.
The question remains: what will it take for blacks and Latinos to be players in the game with prominent pieces on the board?
Lauren DeLisa Coleman is part of the new technorati-to-watch. She is a mobile strategy specialist and analyst specializing in the convergence of Gen X, Y with hip tech platforms, and the author of the new e-book, Rise of the Smart Power Class. Follow her on Twitter at @mediaempress.